When the “Laws of Fear” Do Not Apply: Effective Counterterrorism and the Sense of Security from Terrorism

Date01 September 2017
Published date01 September 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(3) 618 –631
© 2017 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917709354
The terrorism-related death toll is minor compared with
other health risks, but attacks are so threatening people
seek comfort in ill-advised security measures that do
more harm than good. Indeed, getting societies to engage
in self-injurious behavior while pursuing security may
explain why terrorism persists even though groups that
use it rarely get what they want.
Some say governments can help save people from
themselves. Leaders of Israel’s Likud party, for instance,
believe military operations against Hamas make Israelis
feel safer (Ganor 2005, 102). On the surface, this seems
like a reasonable conjecture. After all, robbing perpetra-
tors of their capacity for violence is a straightforward way
of making them less intimidating.
Many security analysts, though, are skeptical of gov-
ernment efforts to neutralize terrorism’s psychological
effects. Counterterrorism, they say, has the unintended
consequence of reminding people about threats. Instead
of providing reassurance, counterterrorism magnifies
people’s sense of danger.
Can governments escape this dilemma by engaging in
counterterrorism in ways that make people feel less threat-
ened by terrorists, or is insecurity counterterrorism’s inev-
itable by-product? In contrast with the skeptics, we argue
that counterterrorism efforts are not doomed to backfire
on the people they are designed to protect as long as
governments manage threats effectively. Insecurity results
from the sense that people cannot control their exposure to
danger (Rothbaum, Weisz, and Snyder 1982; Witte 1992).
Efficacious counterterrorism alleviates this problem by
demonstrating that governments are in control and can
check the threat of violence.
In three experiments, we demonstrate that information
about effective counterterrorism can reassure US citizens
about their security when the threat of terrorism is salient.
People exposed to information about effective counterter-
rorism express greater confidence in the ability of gov-
ernments to control terrorism and express less concern
about the odds of future attacks. Ineffectual counterter-
rorism efforts do not produce these effects.
Effective counterterrorism also decreases people’s
concerns about traveling to potentially dangerous loca-
tions. Insecurity breeds avoidance behavior, but people
who viewed presentations about Israeli Defense Forces’
(IDF) counterterrorism training exercises expressed
greater willingness to travel to Israel than those who did
709354PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917709354Political Research QuarterlyHoffman and Shelby
1Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
Corresponding Author:
Aaron M. Hoffman, Department of Political Science, Purdue
University, 100 North University St., West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA.
Email: ahoffman@purdue.edu
When the “Laws of Fear” Do Not
Apply: Effective Counterterrorism and
the Sense of Security from Terrorism
Aaron M. Hoffman1 and William Shelby1
We investigate how effective counterterrorism influences (1) confidence in government efforts to deal with
terrorism and (2) the sense of insecurity from attacks. Research on “heuristic judgments” implies information about
counterterrorism undercuts people’s perceived security from terrorism. Across three experiments, however, we
find that people who are exposed to information about effective counterterrorism express more confidence in
governments to protect citizens from future attacks and prevent future violence than those who did not receive these
treatments. People who receive information about effective counterterrorism also show greater willingness to travel
to locations where the risk of terrorism is prominent than those who are only exposed to material about terrorism.
Finally, we find that counterterrorism information does not inevitably undermine government efforts to reassure
people about their security. On the contrary, information about effective counterterrorism erased the effects of
exposure to information about terrorism in one study.
terrorism, counterterrorism, fear appeals, reassurance, experiments

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